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2012 Arkansas Razorbacks: Turn or Burn?

The car is on fire, John L. Do something.
The car is on fire, John L. Do something.

In April, when Jeff Long stood at the podium and told us that John L. Smith was the right man for the job, I bought it.

It wasn’t a perfect fit, but there didn’t seem to be a better option. John L. would preserve what had been built under Bobby Petrino and keep the veteran squad on the path that had been forged for it. Long sold me on it, the players backed him up, and I was eager to believe.

We were all very, very wrong.

John L. was handed the keys, maybe not to a Rolls Royce, but at least to an upscale sedan. And he promptly drove it into a tree, watched as it caught fire and then stood idly by as it burned. But he’s not alone in his failure. Paul Petrino was right there riding shotgun, and would-be rescue unit Paul Haynes only fanned the flames, leaving the bill of damages in Long’s care.

So here we all are, staring at the wreckage of once-beautiful promises, wondering to ourselves: Can anything from this disaster be saved?

The 2012 season began, not so long ago, as the first in recent Razorback history without a clear narrative.

2008 was a new beginning. 2009 was the turning of a corner. 2010 was the ascent to the longed-for BCS bowl elite. 2011 was the proving season that under our program savior, the best quarterback in Arkansas history could be replaced with little-to-no dropoff.

Then the aforementioned savior – literally – left the road, leaving 2012 to be a season in the wilderness. The optimistic among us saw no need for this to yield a total unraveling. The pieces were still in place for another good, maybe great season. All we needed was the defensive coordinator he left us with to be a true upgrade, for his little brother to do a decent impression, and a new captain to keep us on course.

What we got? Three straight incompletions, and a season that suddenly looks like a fourth-and-long.

Now the question that remains: To what extent will the ULM loss define the story of 2012?

Make no mistake, this season will be remembered as the one when a Sun Belt team coming off a four-win season came into Little Rock to collect a paycheck and a loss and left us with a re-written Warhawk record book, the second-biggest drop in the history of the AP poll, and a fan video that will live on in the awful perpetuity of Internet infamy.

But that need not be the end of the story.

The 2007 Michigan team will forever be the one that began the season in the top 5 and lost to an FCS team on opening day. What’s less remembered is that after getting embarrassed the following week by Oregon, the Wolverines bounced back to win eight straight games and finished with a win over the defending national champs – the Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators – in a respectable bowl game.

Granted, the Hogs we’ve seen so far – and especially the coaches in charge of them – have left us with little reason for such optimism.

Capable players are time and again being put in positions where their weaknesses are easily exploited. The running game has sputtered. We’ve lost nearly indispensable starters at crucial positions. The offensive line and offensive coordinator have shown a complete lack of ability and/or will to protect the quarterback against lesser competition. And our defense appears wholly unprepared to stop a high-volume, controlled passing game.

If nothing changes, the best hope is that Tyler Wilson, returns, stays healthy, and leads the way to a handful of 45-42 wins.

A better hope is that the highly paid professionals on the sideline and in the coaches’ booth are not as incompetent as they have appeared to be; that the exposure of the last two weeks will spur wholesale changes in schemes and the way the program is being run.

If so, perhaps we can look back on 2012 as a year of transition. It began with a motorcycle crash, bottomed out with a near-crippling loss, but before the whole thing burned to embers, somebody sounded the alarm and we made it through only a little worse for the wear, sporting a some scrapes, bruises and a maybe a metaphorical neckbrace in the aftermath.

For the sake of program, that’s what had better happen.

The alternative is too troubling to consider.